As early as I could remember, I obsessed over Superman. I often found myself daydreaming that I had his superpowers and could help out any damsel in distress while pretending to fly through my parent’s living room in my Superman footie pajamas. I was no longer the pre-k child sliding around on the wood floor; I was the muscular Kryptonian with a chiseled jaw line and greased back hair making the world a safer place.
These types of daydreams don’t stick around. As much as my inner-child still comes out in my breakfast cereal choices, pretending to fly or stop bullets with my chest are no longer part of my weekly routine. After many failed attempts to see through walls, the hard realization that I do not possess actual superpowers sunk in. However, my imagination hasn’t gone completely silent. Even though the heroes from comic books aren’t actually out there fighting crime, the hooligans still do exist. Whenever I come across the random acts of violence that plague people going about their everyday lives, I always ask myself, “what would I do if I was there?”
Three recent news events have all made me ask that very question. The first took place In New York City. A young homosexual couple, named Nick Porto and Kevin Atkins, were walking outside of Madison Square Garden while holding hands. A group of young men approached them from behind, began yelling slurs then knocked the couple to the ground before repeatedly punching and kicking them. This happened in broad daylight on a busy street.
In San Francisco a female cop tried to apprehend a larger female that was jumping on top of cars causing damage to the property. When the police officer attempted to subdue her, the civilian attacked and began to beat the cop. Unable to grab hold of her weapon, she let out cries for help in the busy street. It wasn’t until homeless man, Ryan Raso, noticed what was happening that she received any help. Raso saw the civilian making an attempt to take the cop’s gun so he jumped in and wrestled the large woman to the ground.
The last event took place in Florida. Three twenty-year-old men began harassing a fourteen-year-old boy for no particular reason. When the boy’s father arrived to pick him up, the young men became even more hostile. Marine veteran Wen Jones noticed what was happening and tried to intervene so the situation wouldn’t turn violent. His plan wasn’t successful and the trio turned their attention to the ex-Marine. After beating him, they left him unconscious with a concussion and fractured bones.
I read these three news stories within a couple weeks of each other and noticed a common trait between all of them. In each event, a crowd of people were watching and videotaping as innocent folks were beaten in front of them. Fortunately, in the second two situations, the original victims had their own heroes come in to protect them. Porto and Atkins were not so lucky. Nevertheless, in each situation the majority of people on the scene did nothing.
Statistically speaking, I would fall into the passive majority.
Of course, I do not completely blame every person on the sidelines standing guard behind their recording smart phones. Having video evidence helps to prosecute down the line and many people would not feel comfortable risking their personal safety to help out a stranger. But surely out of the many watching, a larger number of people could have stepped in to help. As they say, there is power in numbers, but it appears that sometimes all of those numbers equate to zero.
Psychologists refer to the lack of action by the witnessing party as the Bystander Effect, which claims that the larger the group of people, the less likely they are to jump in to help a person in trouble.
To put things in perspective think back to middle school English. Remember when the teacher would ask the class for a volunteer to be the first to give their presentation on “The Catcher in the Rye” and nobody raised their hand? This is similar to the Bystander Effect. Since there are a large number of people in class, everybody assumes somebody else will volunteer to go first and save the day. There are thirty people in the room; somebody would step up, right? Well, the weight of responsibility is always lightened when additional people are added to the scene.
To make matters worse, the ego is also taken into effect as a bystander. Humans are generally silly creatures that do not want to break out of the standard practices of the masses. Since nobody raised their hand in class, students feel that it isn’t the norm to be the volunteer. It’s easier to just lay back and follow everybody else.
Since it isn’t the norm to jump in to help, what forces those that actually break those barriers and try to resolve the situation? Were they born with an inherent gene that tickles a “spidey-sense” during trouble, which forces them to help others? Would I be that person who rises to fight? To help myself dig deeper into answering these questions, I came across a list of common characteristics that heroes possess on the psychology section of About.com and used them as a checklist to see if they apply to me:
- People who become heroes tend to be concerned with the well being of others: I err on the side of trapping spiders in cups and giving them freedom outdoors as opposed to killing them.
- Heroes are good at seeing things from the perspective of others: As evil as he turned out to be and as many people as he fucked over, I can still understand why Walter White originally decided to start cooking crystal meth.
- Heroes have a strong moral compass: When I steal milk from one of my roommates, I tell them…the majority of the time.
- Having the right skills and training can make a difference: Between grades 5-8, I was trained in the fine art of Korean karate. Second-degree red belt right here. I am also pretty sure I used the Force to convince my girlfriend to watch Star Wars for the first time.
- Heroes persist, even in the face of fear: I don’t like spiders. Never have. But I will still cup those little bastards and send their hairy asses on their merry way.
Obviously life can’t be boiled down to a personality checklist. The instincts that fire during unexpected situations are as unpredictable as the situation itself. It also may seem easy to assume that those who conduct heroic acts were born with underlying characteristics that enable them to defy fear and stigma to do a selfless act for another. But, world-renowned psychologist, Phillip Zombardo, thinks that assumption is exactly what the Lex Luthors of the world want you to believe. True, the people that confront danger show signs of a heightened sense of altruism and empathy, but Zombardo claims that these are traits that can be learned. He even offers a program titled, the Heroic Imagination Project (HIP), which teaches people that the aspects of heroes are inherent in all of us and the ways to harness these traits. Picture the training Ra’s al Ghul gave Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, except a lot less badass.
HIP offers classes, camps and workshops for students and adults. The program breaks down heroic traits and values into “The Four D’s”:
Democratize: Being a hero isn’t reserved for a special elite. It is something everybody can become.
Demystify: It isn’t necessary to be bitten by a radioactive spider before becoming a hero. It is the average, everyday person that does the extraordinary.
Diffuse: By emphasizing a team effort, more people may be willing to help. This will help to encourage a new and improved norm that encourages people to act as opposed to standing. The world needs more X-Men and fewer solo vigilantes.
Declare: Daily acts of kindness will instill a mindset of heroism. Thus, when something major happens, the empathy and altruism that has already been programmed into the brain will get the feet moving.
All of that seems easy enough. I am happy to do more acts of kindness and happy that I won’t need to be bitten by any radioactive spiders I have trapped in cups to become a hero. Whether or not this is enough for me to selflessly help out my fellow man is a question I won’t know until the situation presents itself. Until then, I will continue to tell myself that I have the gall to act while getting lost in the heroic daydreams I had when I was a child.